The Witness is the Dark Souls of puzzle games- an open-ended, interconnected environment populated with difficult but fair challenges, little to no direct instruction as to how its mechanics work, and an understated, obtuse story that lingers in the background. Jonathan Blow and his team at Thekla created a game that is not for the impatient or easily frustrated, but those willing to plumb its depths will feel deeply accomplished as they overcome daunting obstacles and peel back the layers of its mysterious island using nothing but their intelligence and the knowledge they’ve acquired.
The Witness allows you to explore a colorful island setting at your own pace, and in your own way. Your reason for doing this is…presumably, to solve puzzles. Really, if you play games for a well-considered story or you need motivational context for the actions you’re taking in a game, you will probably feel let down. The story told in this game is nigh incomprehensible, and what little story there is felt like a collection of random musings, with no cohesive thread to tie it all together. If the story in Jonathan Blow’s previous game Braid felt pretentious and thin to you, you’ll probably feel the same way about The Witness. Even the hidden audio logs that you may stumble across on your travels do little to shed light on the nature of the island or your reasons for being there, as the ones that I’ve found were quotes from famous historical figures like Albert Einstein. The ending didn’t exactly leave me feeling satisfied, either, and I suppose that’s okay. The Witness is a game about mechanics, not storyline. Other than some religious and scientific references, this game seems content to simply state that intellectual curiosity is a good thing, and that’s fine with me because the rest of the game is so well-made.
The Witness begins in a nondescript tunnel containing a door that bars your progress forward. When you interact with a panel on the door, the game prompts you to press “A”. This is literally the only time the game references the controller you’re holding, and all instruction from then on is provided through visuals that are primarily designed to direct your attention somewhere. Panels, cables, and pathways on the ground give you a general idea of where to go, but the overall path through the game is player-directed.
At its core, The Witness is about traversing a picturesque 3d world in the service of solving panel after panel of two dimensional line puzzles. This unifying mechanic asks the player to trace a line from one section of a grid to another….and if that description sounds boring, I’m right there with you, but things get much more complicated than that as you progress further into the game, revealing just how much thought went into each of these environments and their puzzles.
Each area of the island focuses on a single rule or logical condition that must be met to solve its progression of line puzzles. Thekla introduces each rule to players through an initial set of tutorial panels, and once they’ve mastered the requisite techniques, they will feel empowered to explore each area to completion. The puzzles increase in difficulty the further one progresses through each section, and they become much more interesting when the game challenges players to use several of the rules at once or incorporate information from the surrounding environment.
Progress through a section is often gated by machines that can only be powered by solving a puzzle, or doors that only open once its associated panel has been solved. In games like Dark Souls or Metroid, progress through the environment is inhibited by the lack of a requisite ability or key item; in The Witness, however, advancement is often earned through the acquisition of knowledge. Can’t finish a stubborn puzzle with an unknown rule set? Perhaps searching elsewhere may give you the knowledge you need to make progress, or provide a much needed mental break.
Wandering through The Witness’s lush environments is a feast for the eyes. Vivid reds, blues, and yellows pop in each visually distinct area of the island, making them both a sight to behold and easy to identify from a distance. And though I often marveled at the game’s naturalistic beauty, I couldn’t help but feel as if the world felt empty, in a way. There are no animals, no people to talk to, and no books to search through…it’s just you, the trees, and crumbling architecture as you move from one puzzle panel to the next. In most cases, there isn’t even music to listen to; the predominant sounds are those of your footsteps and the grinding of ancient machinery as it sputters to life.
The Witness is both a lonely game, and a difficult one. It doesn’t provide you with rewards, other than the satisfaction of a job well done and general progress through the island. In this case, though, that’s more than enough for me. Like the best games that inhabit the Metroidvania genre, I felt a palpable sense of accomplishment when I overcame a difficult challenge and built upon each small success to gain overall mastery of my environment. Though exploration and curiosity are central themes in The Witness, the most probable thing you stand to find by combing over each area is a solution to a puzzle, or even more puzzle panels. But when the puzzles are as fun and satisfying as they are in this game, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The Witness has over 600 puzzles, many of which are optional, and a hidden challenge area that’s reminiscent of a roguelike, as you must complete a timed run through a series of puzzles in one attempt but the panels’ layouts are randomly generated each time. I didn’t count how long I’d spent on The Witness’s island because I was so busy enjoying its puzzles, but I’d estimate it took me somewhere around 40 hours to complete a majority of the game. The Witness is a fairly long game, and the fact that I never wearied of its line puzzles is a testament to both their variance and clever design. Blow and his team at Thekla put lots of time and thought into The Witness and its puzzles over its protracted 7+ year development cycle, and it shows.
Despite using a line-tracing mechanic for its entire duration, The Witness contains a breadth and depth of content that’s typically unheard of for a puzzle game, particularly one that was produced by independent means. Though its lack of a coherent story feels like a missed opportunity, The Witness is a masterpiece of mechanical and artistic design, and quite possibly the best puzzle game ever made.
Final Score: 9/10
+Puzzles are clever, varied, and satisfying to solve
+Excellent artistic/environmental design and use of color
+Tons of content
-Lacks a coherent story to add context, motivation, and meaning to the proceedings
-The environment is filled with puzzles and lush visuals, but little else
(Achievements: completing the aforementioned challenge area will grant you an achievement, and it’s quite rare and difficult to get. The rest of the achievements are tied to progress through the main game, though you don’t have to get all of them to finish the endgame. I don’t want to spoil any more than that, so you can always look up solutions online if you want to get them all. But I strongly suggest you figure out the solutions on your own, it’s worth the time and effort!)